Elements of a Quality Book Review
Most authors are concerned about getting a “good” or “bad” review. What is of equal if not greater importance is getting a quality book review. A reviewer may say good things about a book, but the quality of the review may still be bad. A reviewer might say bad things about a book but the reviewer may have done a good job illustrating why the book is bad. A quality book review will help sell books far more than a poorly written review that praises the book because readers will not pay attention to a reviewer’s opinion if his review makes it clear he is not qualified to review the book.
To write a quality book review, the reviewer must understand a book review’s purpose. A book review is not a book report, a summary of the book, or a testimonial for the book. While it may include or be similar to those, the purpose of a book review is to report on and evaluate what is published. In short, a book review is to serve as a guide to the public of whether reading a book is worthwhile. Each year hundreds of thousands of books are published—no one can even read one tenth of one percent of them within a year. A quality book review will separate the chaff from the wheat, the quality from the trash, the informative from the ignorant, the entertaining from the dull. A book review should allow its readers to make an informed decision about whether to buy or read a book.
Good book reviewers who are reliable can create personal followings. If reviewers lower their standards, if they review bad books, or worst of all, if they recommend bad books, they have failed in their purpose and will lose the trust of their readers.
Good book reviews will focus on good books; flaws in a book may still be pointed out because no piece of writing is perfect, but good book reviews will bring to their readers’ attention the books that truly deserve to be read, books that can help readers see life and situations in a new light while entertaining them, and providing them new and valuable information.
To illustrate the elements that compose a good book review, and how the elements are different between fiction and non-fiction, I will provide examples from two books I have reviewed for Reader Views. I enjoyed and gave positive reviews to both books. I will only briefly quote from my reviews of these books but the full reviews can be found at www.ReaderViews.com.
The fiction work is “In High Places” by Tom Morrisey (Bethany House 2007, ISBN 9780764203466). This novel is part of the Christian fiction genre, a genre I occasionally read but of which I am not particularly fond. I felt, however, that Morrisey did an excellent job of not being preachy in working Christianity into the novel, and I thought his storyline effective and his characters well-developed so it stood out for me as an example of what the Christian fiction genre should seek to accomplish.
The non-fiction book is “A South Divided: Portraits of Dissent in the Confederacy” by David C. Downing (Cumberland House Publishing 2007, ISBN 97815825879). I am always interested in history, and I thought Downing did an excellent job of bringing attention to a side of the Civil War that has not been given adequate attention previously.
The elements that should be included in a good book review are as follows:
The Purpose of the Book
Fiction—The book review will tell you what the story is about, providing enough of a plot introduction to catch the reader’s interest. It will describe the content so the reader feels suspense and interest and wants to know further what happens. Mention of the author’s theme is also essential. The climax and resolution should never be mentioned—the reader does not want the plot given away. Quotes may be included as an example of the author’s style and approach.
Here is the description of the plot I provided for Morrisey’s novel:
“In High Places” by Tom Morrisey opens with Patrick Nolan and his father, Kevin, bonding as father and son during a rock climbing expedition at Seneca Rocks in West Virginia in 1976. The opening is a bit too filled with rock-climbing terminology, but if the reader is patient, within a few pages, the novel draws us in as Patrick and Kevin return home, only to discover Patrick’s mother has died, apparently by committing suicide.
Patrick and Kevin’s grief is tremendous, but as men, they find themselves unable to discuss it with one another. The reader is aware both are silently suffering, not knowing how to comfort each other, and their lack of belief in God makes it more difficult for them to find solace for their pain.
Unable to live in their home because it reminds them too much of their lost loved one, Patrick’s father decides they will return to Seneca Rocks and open up a shop selling climbing equipment. This new life keeps them busy and helps them forget their grief for a short time.
The plot becomes complicated when Patrick meets and falls in love with Rachel, a preacher’s daughter. When the preacher and Patrick’s father meet, the preacher tries to talk to Kevin about God and Heaven, but Kevin becomes angry, refusing to believe in a God who would allow his wife to commit suicide.
I introduce the characters and plot as well as the theme—grief and the question of God’s existence. I make it clear the theme is essential to the conflict because the fathers have opposing beliefs about the existence of God, yet their children are in love. The reader of the review is left to understand the book will explore how God could allow suicide to happen and bring such pain to a family, and also how Patrick and Rachel will struggle to have a relationship when their fathers have different religious viewpoints.
Non-Fiction—The book review will explain what the purpose or theme of the book is. Again quotes may be included to give the reader an idea of the author’s style and approach. Here is my example from Downing’s “A South Divided.”
David C. Downing’s new book “A South Divided: Portraits of Dissent in the Confederacy” is a fascinating and long overdue book. While he references a few books that have preceded his about divisions in the Southern States, “A South Divided” brings to the forefront a forgotten piece of American history that was far more complicated than we have been led to believe.
Downing makes the point that “the South” and the “Confederacy” are not interchangeable terms. Many people in the South did not support the Confederacy but wished to preserve the Union, and many Southerners acted subversively to support the Union during the war. Downing demonstrates that there is a lot of gray area in the battle between the blue and the gray.
Again, I stated what the book was about, what the theme was and why it mattered by explaining the importance of terminology and that history is not as black and white as it may seem.
Note that for both fiction and non-fiction, I stated quotes may be included to give the reader an idea of the author’s style and approach. I recommend quoting from the book, although I did not do so with either of my above examples. In deciding whether to quote, space may be a consideration. If you are writing a review for a publication that has a word limit, you may not have room to quote. It you have the room, however, it is advisable to quote the author. It is especially recommended if the writer’s style is distinctive. For example, when I reviewed “Foot Ways” by Lynn Veach Sadler (Bards and Sages, 2007, ISBN 9780615145631) I opened the review by saying:
“Foot Ways” by Lynn Veach Sadler is one of the most creative, whimsical, and enjoyable books I have read in recent years. It is a short book, but one written with a true precision of language and thought.
Because I focused on the author’s creativity and language at the beginning of the review, it was necessary to provide the reader an example to support that statement, which I did by quoting one phrase from the book, the name of an event that takes place. I also compared the book to other well-known books and literary genres so readers familiar with those works would have a better idea of the author’s style.
…this book is remarkably unique in its humor. It reads like a fable or old wives’ tale. I felt as if I were alternately reading Christina Rossetti’s “Goblin Market,” James Joyce’s “Finnegan’s Wake,” old Scottish ballads, and Southern Gothic literature. Sadler creates moments of the grotesque such as Polly’s father selling tickets for people to see her mother dying of cancer. People come from all over to see “The Woman Eaten Up,” and when single men come, Polly hides for fear her father will force her into marriage with one. For me, the book’s highlight was when Polly performed at the “Annual Masonic Lodge Number Fourteen Spring Jubilee Barbecue and Chicken Stew Supper and Theatrical Performance Tribute.” That name alone suggests the whimsicalness of the event where people in the community go looking for a bit of culture. What happens at the (it bears repeating) “Annual Masonic Lodge Number Fourteen Spring Jubilee Barbecue and Chicken Stew Supper and Theatrical Performance Tribute” is the true climax of the novel.
What is the Book’s Value
Fiction—The review will tell the reader whether the book is entertaining or whether it offers insights into life and human nature. The reviewer should briefly, without dully listing, but rather integrating them, mention the four main elements of fiction: the plot, theme, characters and style.
For example, in Morrisey’s “In High Places” I listed the plot, theme, and names of the characters in the opening paragraphs I quoted above. Usually, while describing the plot, the theme and characters also can be described. Those opening paragraphs are largely a summary of the opening of the book. Discussion of style and to a lesser extent characters, plot and theme, focus upon the book’s value—the importance of the message or theme and also how well it succeeds in its goal. With style, I focused on the point-of-view from which the story was told.
I think Morrisey handles the difficult questions and situations he creates with great maturity and tactfulness. I especially admired his decision to tell the story from Patrick’s perspective, which allowed for all the questioning of a teenage boy, making the novel a story of a father-son relationship, a coming of age story, and a love story combined.
Non-Fiction—The review will tell the reader the worthiness of the research done on the subject and also the value of the information provided. For example, the reviewer might comment upon what he personally learned from the book.
In discussing, “A South Divided” I do not mention the author’s research directly, but by mentioning the many examples Downing provides of sections of the South that did not want to separate from the Union, I make it clear that the author did considerable research.
Equally interesting were the discussions of Southern states and counties that opposed secession from the Union. West Virginia’s story of division with Virginia and its own incorporation into the Union is the most notable and best known though seldom told story. However, counties in Tennessee, Mississippi, and Alabama also all sought to separate themselves from the states they were in and create their own independent states within the Union. These cases were less successful than West Virginia, but the number of them shows how much the South was divided.
What, if any, are the Book’s Faults
If a book truly is deplorably bad, it is best not to review it. A good reviewer will always find something kind and encouraging to say—for example, that the book is historically accurate or that the author clearly did his research, even if the author is a poor novelist. Overall, however, a review of a bad book is a waste of time for the reviewer and his readers. It is better not to bring attention to bad books, and especially in print media where there is limited space, leave room for the many deserving books to receive reviews. Reviewers should always be honest because their duty is to readers who trust the reviewer to keep them from wasting their time and money on bad books.
A book reviewer should avoid being patronizing by telling the author how to rewrite the book. For example, “The book would have been better had the author developed the courtship between the characters longer” or “The author failed to mention [some interesting fact] that had a major influence on the events described.” The book review is not a contest between the author and the reviewer where the reviewer is trying to show he or she is more intelligent than the author. If the reviewer knows more than the author, he should write his own book on the topic. In my own examples of pointing out flaws in the book, I try to be honest and direct, yet tactful.
Fiction—The review will describe where the book is lacking. For example, did a plot twist occur because of a character’s actions but the character’s motivation for the act was not clear? Was the outcome of the story unbelievable? Is the book full of typographical errors or is the writing poor?
In Morrisey’s “In High Places” I found a few stumbling blocks but also pointed out that what I did not care for in the book was largely the result of my personal preferences. I quickly moved past what I perceived as the book’s flaws to explain the book’s greater value.
The opening is a bit too filled with rock-climbing terminology, but if the reader is patient, within a few pages, the novel draws us in as Patrick and Kevin return home, only to discover Patrick’s mother has died, apparently by committing suicide.
And later in the review:
Some readers may be turned off that “In High Places” is clearly a Christian book, but Kevin Nolan’s questioning of God made me feel the book was not trying to preach or convince the reader of the truths of Christianity. Instead, it asked a legitimate question about why God would allow bad things to happen to good people. The book does not give easy answers; even when Patrick learns more about the details surrounding his mother’s death, the novel does not seek to answer the question of why God allowed his mother to die. Rather than bring simple closure, the book opens up layers of complexity regarding the human condition and human behavior; it explores the difficulties and unanswerable reasons behind why people love and hurt each other. The book is hopeful, but the hopefulness is mixed with a strong realism throughout.
Non-Fiction—The review will describe where the book’s argument is weak or the research inadequate. For example, does the author appear completely ignorant of something that is otherwise general knowledge about his topic? Is there faulty logic used by the author to bring about his main point?
When I reviewed Downing’s “A South Divided” I only found one piece of information I felt was missing, and I walked a fine line trying not to slip into telling the author how to write his book. I also gave the author the benefit of the doubt for why he did not include the information I thought was missing.
The only information I felt missing from the book was the story of President Andrew Johnson, who was only mentioned briefly, yet I cannot help feeling he was the most important Southerner, or at least the Southerner who rose to the highest rank within the Union during the war. Perhaps Downing felt the story of Johnson and his impeachment was already well known, but I would have liked to see Johnson included. I think it would have been a good contrast, especially because Downing discusses how skeptical Lincoln and many others were about promoting General Thomas because he was a Southerner, so I would have liked to know more about why Johnson was given such a high position as vice-president.
In the end, a good book review will tell the reader why he should read the book, and good reviewers will remember that their role is not to display their own abilities, nor to patronize or applaud the author. A book reviewer’s foremost purpose is to provide reliable suggestions for good reading to the reading public.
Tyler R. Tichelaar is editor and contributing author of Authors Access: 30 Secrets for Authors and Publishers, the regionally bestselling Marquette Trilogy and the newly published Narrow Lives. He is the Associate Editor of Reader Views, he has interviewed over 200 authors, written more than 60 book reviews, and edited and evaluated manuscripts for publication